UK: WHEN SIR BECOMES A CIVILIAN. - When the Cold War ended so, for 5,000 officers, did the prospect of a job for life. Anita van de Vliet talks to the brass who have steeled themselves for a new career.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When the Cold War ended so, for 5,000 officers, did the prospect of a job for life. Anita van de Vliet talks to the brass who have steeled themselves for a new career.

When Lieutenant-Colonel John Nevill, as he then was, visited Berlin in 1988, 'the Wall was as solid as ever, the waiters in the east were still being trained in the KGB school of languages, and you could order any sort of meat, as long as it was grey'. Less than a year later, despite all expert forecasts to the contrary, the Wall was down and the east Germans had the chance to savour a change of political and economic diet. For the British armed forces, the events of 1989 had less positive after-effects. 'Gorbachev ended the Cold War - and so put everyone out of a job,' says Nevill, wryly. He exaggerates, but the Government's Options for Change policy will mean the loss of over 23,500 service jobs between 1992 and 1995 in an unprecedented programme of manpower reduction.

The redundancies are being spread across the three services, although, predictably, the majority are taking place in the army, the largest service, where nearly 10,000 jobs have already gone in phases 1 and 2 of the programme (the latter was implemented in February last year, the second in February this year), with an expected 6,500 redundancies to come next year. The Royal Navy has shed over 2,000 and will, it is thought, lose another 2,000 next year. The RAF, which has adopted a slightly different time schedule, has lost around 1,000 jobs so far and has announced that a further 2,200 will go by March 1995.

Of the total number of redundees, an estimated 5,000 will be officers; and, wheareas all the soldiers who leave do so voluntarily, the officers are divided equally between volunteers and compulsory leavers. 'To rely entirely on volunteers would leave an unbalanced army,' says Major James Parsons of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (a volunteer).

All decisions on who may and who should go are taken centrally, by the military secretaries department at the Ministry of Defence. This is the equivalent of a personnel department. It looks after the careers of officers in particular, holding all their records and annual appraisals. The department's short lists, which contain three times the number needed, are then closely scrutinised by committees set up for the purpose, with each case being individually considered. The MoD is now working on the list for next year's redundancies, which will total around 10,700, including an estimated 2,000 officers. There will, one imagines, be some frayed nerves in the mess until the final list is announced next February.

Of course, large-scale redundancies are commonplace enough in the civilian world these days. But redundancies from the services represent a special case, rather as if the Church were to announce a downsizing of the priesthood. For one thing, although a good number of men and women do join with the intention of leaving early, the majority have joined on the promise of a guaranteed career for 'life', until the age of 55. They expect not just a career, but a career progressing along stable and orderly lines, where promotion follows results and where lesser lights can rest assured that they will never be sacked, simply moved on to a more appropriate function.

Moreover, with an officer's job comes an army house, provided he is married - which is why, one realistic army wife told me, most officers are. Children are sent to boarding school at the army's expense, which also represents a considerable saving. For many army people, there is sense of warmth in belonging to the 'regimental family'. A regiment is like a 'little cantonment', according to one ex-officer, where 'when you stop work, you start partying'. For some, there are those glorious regimental cricket grounds. For all, there is the assurance of inhabiting an ordered world of 'finely-tuned hierarchies', as Nevill describes it. Former regimental sergeant major Tony Hammond, who left the army aged 40 in 1983 and now runs his own successful insignia supply business (turn-over, £3.5m), sums up: 'I had 22 years in the military without having to worry about money, and of living according to a known pecking order.'

This institutional caring and sense of obligation to employees can also be seen in the manner in which the redundancies have been implemented. Those made compulsorily redundant are called in individually by their employing officer, to be told the news as gently as possible and to receive a 'health pack' of information on financial matters, sources of support and advisers. (The same compendium of advice goes to those taking voluntary redundancy.). The timing of their departures is generous: informed in February, they go only the following March (volunteers leave by November). As with any civilian redundancies, decisions on who should be made to go are based on the employee's record (scrupulously kept in the services) and employability; in other words, as one officer bluntly puts it, 'The best people are kept, and the worst are made redundant.' Another officer comments, 'If these were civilian jobs, some people would have been sacked, and asked to clear their desks the same day.'

Redundees are given a large measure of counselling and support. This is based on an extension of resettlement provision offered to the 30,000 people who leave in any normal year (excluding redundancies). There are comprehensive resettlement briefings on topics ranging from job search skills to information on over 70 specific careers or occupations and advice on personal finance, housing and regional prospects. Over 500 of these briefings, with a total capacity of over 38,000 places, are held in the UK each year, with some 50 further briefings overseas. During the Options for Change drawdown period, this briefing provision will be more than doubled.

In addition, services people can undertake 'familiarisation attachments' of up to five days with a civilian firm or organisation in the UK or abroad (while on full pay), and training courses of up to four weeks, whether at the services' own resettlement centres or at UK educational institutions. The Tri-Service Resettlement Organisation (TSRO) provides a job search and job matching service, linking potential employers with personnel selected by computer on the basis of service record, aptitude and preferences. All this is way beyond what most civilian organisations would offer, and is in line with the services' belief in meticulous planning and preparation.

Financially, too, the terms are relatively generous. For example, an army captain aged 28 gets a special capital payment of nearly £33,000 on leaving, with a small pension (£2,600) and terminal grant (nearly £8,000) awaiting him when he reaches 60. A major of 46 gets a little over £47,000 in special capital payment, a pension of £11,800 and a terminal grant of over £35,000 - all of these being paid from the date of leaving. For a lieutenant-colonel aged 48, the equivalent sums (also paid immediately) are £58,000, a pension of over £16,000 and grant of nearly £49,000.

In all, the services can hardly be accused of being hardhearted in their handling of the Options for Change programme. Nevertheless, the shock of compulsory redundancy has provoked some resentment. There are tales of army majors digging in their heels and refusing to budge out of their army houses, and of officers sulkily doing the absolute minimum work until they leave. Even those taking voluntary redundancy confess to a certain apprehension and the need for 'a steeling of the mind' as they prepare to take their chances on Civvy Street.

'The most difficult part was making the emotional decision to leave,' says Major Parsons. Aged 38, he is currently director of the army operations centre at the MoD in Whitehall, but will leave the army in November. 'My personal worry was that my redundancy application would not be accepted' (and indeed, he says, in certain areas like the Royal Artillery, too many have applied and there have been a small number of refusals).

The rules for each phase of redundancies are published in July of the previous year, and service people have until October to volunteer. The main reason for volunteering is the recognition, among the more ambitious, that career opportunities have shrunk in the post-Cold War era. Lieutenant-Colonel Nevill, for example, had been assured that he would become a full colonel and that he had a reasonable chance, 'given a fair wind', of making it to brigadier. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was told more circumspectly that he might 'possibly' make it to full colonel. 'Promotion age zones in the army are such that if you haven't made it to colonel by 50, you never will,' points out Nevill, now 47.

For some, a frustration with the rigid, age-related career structure to which Nevill refers is itself a factor in the decision to leave. Major Jeremy Knight of the Royal Green Jackets, for example, who left this July, says: 'No matter how good you are, you're restricted by your age bracket.' He adds that 'the higher up in the hierarchy you get, the more you depend on good reports from your superiors, with the result that the wrong sort of people (those who play it safe rather than the innovators and risk-takers) get promoted.' This is a point made by several officers now leaving, one of whom says, anonymously, that it is a system which 'encourages mediocrity'.

Knight's further complaint is also a common one: that 'after you have commanded a regiment, when you reach the age of 40, you have said "goodbye" to soldiering in the basic sense of leading your men and manipulating the scene on a battlefield, and you enter the staff system, pushing paper around in a succession of staff jobs and working within what must be called a bureaucratic environment'. This is, of course, a complaint heard in all walks of life, not only the military.

One of the first tasks for leavers, whether voluntary or compulsory, is to compose a CV. This will be a first for many, since selling yourself and trumpeting your achievements abroad is not required, or the done thing, in the services. The challenge here is to produce an account which is intelligible to outsiders. Indeed, as memories of National Service become the preserve of the over-60s, fewer and fewer civilians have any notion of what work in the modern services really involves. Programmes such as Civvies - 'not stereotypes, just complete fiction', according to Tony Hammond - are less than helpful.

But once translated from military jargon into the civilian or business equivalent, the experience on those CVs can be quite surprising in its scope, certainly to the ignoramus who had imagined that army life consisted largely of marching men round in a square. The level of ability may surprise, too. 'Some fairly moderate people survive in the services, but some officers are among the cleverest in the country,' comments headhunter Ian Patterson. The quality of his service officer proteges bears him out: one, for example, a 31-year-old lieutenant in the Royal Navy, has not only an engineering science degree from Cambridge but a graduate management admission test (GMAT) score of 750.

The personalities behind the CVs can be unexpected too, showing enterprise and flair. Major Knight, for instance, despite being in some ways a 'traditional' army man, following in his father's army footsteps, has attended the Ecole Europeenne des Affaires (EAP) in his spare time, graduating with an MBA, as well as perfecting his French and Spanish. He is now more au fait with contemporary management thinking than most business people, quoting from Michael Porter or Kenichi Ohmae without blinking an eyelid (his listeners may).

Or, consider the case of Nevill, whose army record seems remarkably apt for a business career (and who did, in fact, get the first job he applied for, as consultant with the European computer management services group CMG, despite being 46 at the time). He is an economics graduate from York University who joined the Loyal (amalgamated into the Queen's Lancashires) as an infantry officer in 1968. He decided early on that 'there had to be more to life than living in holes in the ground and tours of Germany', and so moved to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC, now the Royal Logistics Corps), supplier of army needs from socks to tanks.

After a six-month course on logistics and management training (over and above the normal army training in leadership and management) and two years of handling 12,000 line items as technical officer in the field in Germany, Nevill designed the first online system in the RAOC for the control of warehouse space - a huge system which is still running. In his next IT job, which followed his postgraduate diploma in management sciences specialising in production and logistics at UMIST, he worked on the development of an electronic mail package to replace the army's 'creaking signal system' at the time of the Falklands War. This was followed by six months as second-in-command of the logistics battalion in the Falklands, 'running the port, the post office, the ammunitions and food supplies, sweeping roads and throwing cocktail parties'. Then he spent three years as staff officer in Brunei, running the Brunei army's logistics. He returned, as a lieutenant-colonel, to the UK to manage the army's clothing and personal equipment, with a £90-million annual budget.

Emphasising the flexibility and adaptability encouraged by an army career and training, Nevill points out that when he first undertook this complex task, what he knew about clothing 'could have fitted on a very small designer label'. In his final job in the army, he worked as project manager for the army's ammunition management system - a highly complex system using the latest Ingres/Unix technology and involving a large staff.

This CV, and an effective performance in the CMG consultancy's five-hour interview (standard procedure for all candidates), won Nevill his job. Not all ex-services job seekers will be as instantly successful. Statistically, though, their chances of finding jobs in the civilian world are relatively good. Post-exit surveys circulated by the TSRO to all phase 1 leavers of all ranks showed that three months after their departure 68% were in employment, with a further 5% in full-time education or training. This was, after all, during the depth of the recession, and compares favourably with the civilian record.

But these statistics do not tell the whole truth. The MoD does not have figures on the average time it takes for ex-servicemen to find jobs, nor an analysis of the age factor: for some the search can be long, and age may well play a part. Captain Hugh Peers, for example, who was not a redundee, but who chose to take early retirement from the Royal Navy in 1991, took over 18 months to find his job (as director of Sparks, a sports charity). 'The Navy was good at trying to prepare me for civilian life,' he says loyally, 'but there were all sorts of factors against me - the fact that I was 53, that I had been living abroad, that I was a service person, and therefore an un-known quantity, and that there was a recession.'

Statistics also camouflage the sheer tenacity required. Peter Chamberlin, for instance, formerly a lieutenant-colonel with the Royal Green Jackets, who opted to start a second career at the age of 46 in 1989, recalls writing cold to over 300 companies - those with a 'lot of names on the letterheads because I figured that if they had a lot of senior people they might need an army chap to help them run the business'. Only two responded positively. One wrote back, 'What an extraordinary suggestion - but come and have a chat'. The other response came from Christie's the auctioneers who offered him the job of operations manager. Looking back, Chamberlin concludes simply that 'the shift from the services to civilian life is as big - or as small - as you care to make it.' A remark which should help reassure worried servicemen that making the break need not be the life-shattering experience they feared.

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